Euro final Clasico still on the cards

Conspiracy theorists suspect the Champions League draw is arranged in consultation with UEFA’s marketing department.

If so, they have done a remarkably good job this time.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two sides everyone would enjoy seeing in the final, except for Bayern Munich fans. But there is sufficient uncertainty to make both the quarter-finals and semi-finals interesting.

Barcelona have a good chance of becoming the first team to retain the trophy while the way is open for Real Madrid to claim their 10th European title. Yet even that mismatch against APOEL could be intriguing — José Mourinho certainly will not have forgotten that a full-strength Inter side were lucky to escape with a draw in Cyprus three years ago.

It’s refreshing to have a genuine minnow in the quarter-finals and also to have seven different countries represented — almost like the European Cup in the good old days.

Bayern will be favourites against Marseille, especially since the French will be without their keeper, Steve Mandanda, sent off for a crazy foul in the last seconds against Inter. Benfica are underdogs against Chelsea, but as Louis van Gaal said at the weekend, they have an excellent team spirit and their two draws against Manchester United in the group stages have given them confidence.

As for Milan-Barcelona, this is a contest that both teams would rather have avoided. The Italians were lucky to avoid a heavier defeat at home in the group stage, but both sides had already qualified by then. In the first match, which finished 2-2, Barcelona experimented with their 3-3-4 formation, went a goal down in 24 seconds and then conceded an equaliser right at the end. Milan were severely depleted in that game in September — without both Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — and they lost both Kevin-Prince Boateng and Antonio Cassano during the match. Cassano is still recovering from heart surgery and Milan have had constant injury problems this season. They could be severely exposed in defence without Ignazio Abate and Mark van Bommel, who is suspended for the first leg, but if their attack is on song, they may cause Barcelona serious worries and Ibrahimovic won’t lack motivation against the club that discarded him.

There could be some surprises in store in Spain’s title race as well. Real Madrid seem to have a comfortable lead, but they did finally drop two points against Malaga on Sunday. It seems inconceivable that a Mourinho side could be caught after winning 20 out of their last 22 matches, but Barcelona do have the head-to-head advantage and the two sides still have to play each other in a fixture sandwiched between the two legs of the Champions League semi-final.

Barcelona also have a fixture against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao to come between their two matches against Milan. Athletic don’t seem able consistently to maintain the quality they showed against United in the Europa League — they lost 3-0 at home to Valencia on Sunday — but Basques v Catalans is usually a lively encounter.

That same weekend Real Madrid travel to Pamplona to play Osasuna, another Basque club that delights in challenging the Big Two.

Marseille have had a catastrophic run — two points from seven games — which has left them 20 points behind PSG in the league and eight points short of qualifying for the Europa League. The Champions League gives them a chance of salvaging a bit of glory from a very poor season — they are also in the cup, but so are PSG and Lyon. Unfortunately for them, Bayern have some easy fixtures coming up and will be able to rest players should they want to.

Perhaps the trickiest one to call is Benfica-Chelsea. Chelsea have a tough set of matches coming up, starting tomorrow against Manchester City. Benfica have an easier ride, after a little skirmish in the League Cup against Porto tonight. But in between their two Champions League matches they meet Braga, who are neck and neck with them in the league after a tremendous run of 12 victories.

Balancing league and European priorities is never simple. This season it looks like throwing up some real challenges for the managers concerned.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

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